Oh, Longbourn. I wanted to like you so much more than I did. You showed such potential but what a disappointment you turned out to be.
I don't think it would take a particularly dedicated reader of this blog to realise that I'm a huge Jane Austen fan. I love Austen's books because of her delightful prose, her fantastic characters, her comedy, her insightful social commentary, and her beautiful romances. I love all of her novels - well, maybe not Mansfield Park - but my absolute favourite is Pride and Prejudice. I hate to go for the cliched choice but it really is. The reason why Pride and Prejudice is the cliched choice is because it's most people's favourite Jane Austen novel. It's the most famous of her books and it's spawned numerous sequels, prequels, retellings and parodies. Usually I'm very wary about these various Pride and Prejudice spin-offs so when I first heard about Longbourn I wasn't remotely interested. But after I read quite a few positive reviews of it, and then found out that it had already picked up a film adaptation, I became more curious.
I feel so let down by Longbourn. At first I found the book quite absorbing but as it carried on I became more and more dissatisfied with it. Initially I was intrigued by Sarah and her romance with James but I soon became exasperated with them. Sarah came across as whiny, naive, stupid and resentful. She made some really bad decisions and I could find nothing to like about her. James was just boring. Mrs Hill and Ptolemy were the only interesting new characters but they didn't get very much page-time. The characters from Austen's book weren't any better portrayed either. The only Pride and Prejudice characters that I feel Baker actually managed to capture quite well were Lydia and (to a lesser extent) Wickham. None of the other existing characters from Pride and Prejudice had any dialogue that rang true. It certainly didn't help that Baker took so many liberties with their characters! Mary is passionately in love with Mr Collins and is inconsolable when he chooses to marry Charlotte Lucas. Mr Collins turns out to be quite a sweet man and not at all pompous or annoying. Mr Bennet has a skeleton in his closet and isn't remotely funny. The glimpses of Elizabeth and Darcy's married life are odd and unpleasant.
Aside from Longbourn's characterisations my other big problem with this book was how ludicrously melodramatic it became. Towards the end the book became downright laughable. We get an affair, an illegitimate child, a closet homosexual who dies after having sex with his lover outdoors, a lengthy digression on the Napoleonic Wars, an army deserter, a paedophile, torture, prostitution, and a hint that Wickham has given Lydia a venereal disease. I don't consider myself to be a strict book purist these days but all of these things really offended me. Not one of them has the slightest place in a Pride and Prejudice story and I got the impression that Baker was trying to be deliberately provocative or controversial.
The sad thing is that Longbourn had the potential to be a truly great book. Its premise is interesting and Jo Baker's writing is really, really good - excellent in fact. Her prose is descriptive and vivid. Baker clearly did her historical research for Longbourn as well. In the beginning I was genuinely fascinated by Baker's descriptions of Regency servant life. I loved learning more about this different world and way of living that I knew nothing about. I also really liked the scenes where Wickham was trying to ingratiate himself with the servants. These scenes made a lot of sense and seemed very in-character. Wickham's father was a steward after all. He was born into the servants' world and he'd know how things are run downstairs.
I'm very reluctant to recommend Longbourn because I found it such a disappointment but I do know that there are some Pride and Prejudice fans out there have loved Longbourn so - proceed with caution I guess!